There is something about cities at night when the streets empty, the shops close down and the lights from inside shine out. The night hides but it also reveals. Interiors and entrances light up as the night swallows the outside. Buildings appear differently, warmer, colder, stranger, depending on the light. Glimpses of lives that stay unnoticed during the day are suddenly revealed, while other sides of life hide away.
I recently got around to tidying up the Travel section on my web site, and at the same time posted new images from my last trip to Kolkata.
I first visited Kolkata back in 1986 (it was still called Calcutta back then). The trip was a nightmare. The friend I was travelling with ended up in hospital with dyssentri, and instead of travelling around the country, we were stuck in the city which back then was quite horrible. It was extremely overcrowded – people were fleeing the impoverished countryside in masses and ended up as squatters in Kolkata. The city was polluted, smelly and traffic perpetually congested. I literally still had nightmares of the place months after being back in Europe. It took me almost 30 years to go back to the city, but when I did, in 2013, I found a place much changed for the better. It is a lot less crowded, and it is less dirty and hectic than Mumbai for instance. I returned there again in 2014 and 2015, which tells you that now I am quite fond of the place.
Kolkatans take pride in that their city is different from other Indian cities, and indeed it is, even though, as an outsider, I may find it difficult to judge just what that difference is. Kolkata is relatively young, of course; daring back to the 18th century only. It used to be India’s most populous city, until Mumbai overtook it, and during the British occupation, it was the capital of the British Raj. And indeed, it is this British past which characterises Kolkata to a large degree – certainly in its architecture, from the Victoria Memorial on down to the many stately villas, many of them now sadly crumbling or being demolished. The city once boasted a vibrant Jewish community, which numbered 5000 before Indian independence, but is now down to 26 members. Similarly, Kolkata is home to India’s only Chinatown, but the ethnic Chinese community has also dwindled considerably.
The city is named after the goddess Kali, and a friend of mine argues that it this which leads to women being far more empowered in Kolkata than in the rest of India.
The photos I put up are from those three last trips – unfortunately I have no photos left from the 1986 trip. I organised the images into three sets:
The City: as the name implies, photos from around the city. It is not meant to be a travel guide, and many of the landmark sites are missing from the collection. Instead I have included images of those places which interested me the most. My favourite ones were probably the overgrown grounds of the National Library and the equally overgrown Victorian-era South Park Street Cemetery. Also included are photos from two of the three Kolkatan synagogues.
Kolkata At Night: these are scenes from night time festivities during three Kolkata festivals: the Durga Pujas (in honour of the goddess Durga, a manifestation of the goddess Kali), the Kali Durgas (in honour of Kali), and the all-Indian festival of Diwali.
Across the River: images from the area outside Kolkata, on the opposite banks of the Hooghly River, as that particular branch of the Ganges is called – Chandannagar, an area which once belonged to the French (and Portuguese and Swedes).